Baljit Chadha, the entrepreneur behind Quebec's controversial asbestos exports, has earned a rare public rebuke from an official with the World Health Organization for distorting its position on the safety of the carcinogenic product.
"We have been receiving a lot of expressions of concerns from around the world that the WHO has been misquoted," Ivan Ivanov, the team leader of occupational health at the WHO Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a phone interview from Geneva.
Dr. Ivanov was critical of Mr. Chadha for stating in a recent newspaper commentary that a WHO-sanctioned level of exposure to asbestos "poses no health risk."
"There is no safe threshold of exposure to all forms of asbestos," Dr. Ivanov said.
The spat comes at delicate time for Mr. Chadha, who is lobbying hard to promote asbestos as safe while he seeks to reopen the largely unused Mine Jeffrey in the town of Asbestos, with $25-million he says he has secured from new investors.
Despite the controversy over exporting a product that is heavily curtailed in Canada and virtually banned in many countries, the Quebec government – which has given the troubled mine a $58-million loan guarantee – could well approve the deal by Christmas.
"We have always said that we are in favour of the project," said Harold Fortin, spokesman for Quebec's Minister of Economic Development.
Dr. Ivanov was responding to an opinion column written by Mr. Chadha published earlier this month in the Montreal Gazette in which he said that Quebec's current occupational exposure limits of one fibre per cubic centimetre is "the norm at the mine today and by the World Health Organization."
Mr. Chadha wrote that "peer-reviewed scientific evidence" showed those levels were safe.
But Dr. Ivanov said the WHO does not have any "norm" for the cancer-causing substance, and instead calls for a stop to the use of all types of asbestos as the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases.
In fact, Quebec's asbestos safety standards are 10 times lower than the 0.1 fibre per cubic centimetre used by nine other Canadian provinces and many Western countries, according to the Institut national de santé publique du Québec, a provincial government-funded research centre.
Even at that stricter level practised elsewhere, Dr. Ivanov said studies show lifetime exposure was related to five deaths from lung cancer per 1,000 exposed people.
"Even very low levels can affect the cells and the genetic system of the body," he said. "The information about what the WHO considers as safe and not safe should come from WHO and not from the industry that is using the material."
Guy Versailles, a spokesman for Mr. Chadha, qualified the mine developer's comments but challenged the WHO to prove its case.
"We never say there is no risk. What we say is that the risk is so low as not to be measurable," he said. "Show me the meat – just show me the studies. Just tell me how exactly you can demonstrate this in a scientific way."
Dr. Ivanov pointed to a study published in The Lancet Oncology medical journal that concluded the product is linked to mesothelioma, which attacks the lining of several internal organs, as well as to cancer of the lung, larynx and ovary.
"All forms of asbestos including chrysotile cause cancer in humans," he said.
Mr. Chadha has come under fire for suggesting that unlike the traditional asbestos used for decades as insulation, chrysotile asbestos contained mainly in cement roofing tiles has not been definitively linked to diseases.
"One is deadly and one is not," Mr. Chadha told The Globe and Mail last month. "There is very little scientific evidence to go against us. In fact, there is none."
"This is like saying tobacco does not cause cancer," said Kathleen Ruff, the senior human-rights adviser with the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute and a leading opponent of Canada's asbestos exports to countries where safety standards are lax. "Not a single reputable scientific or medical association supports the assertions put forward by Mr. Chadha."